Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

And just like that, the best time of the year is finally back. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin Wednesday night after a long and grueling regular season. Some teams steam rolled their way into the postseason as others backed their way in while relying on help from other teams around the league. Nonetheless, we’re in for a couple months of heart-stopping hockey.

Each year I take some time to make my predictions for every playoff series, and this year is no different. This is one of my favorite topics to write about, so let’s get to it.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

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Season Series: Panthers won, 2-1

It’s not the most marquee matchup on tap in the first round, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be an exciting one. These are two relatively young teams that built from the ground up over the past few years and now get to try and prove themselves in the postseason. The Islanders were in the playoffs just last season and were eliminated in a tough seven game series against the Capitals. This is a team that is looking to finally get over that first round hurdle and advance to the second round. They are led by what can be a potent top two lines featuring John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Frans Nielsen, but after that they take a bit of a dip in production. Defensively, the Islanders have a pretty solid unit led by Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and company. In net, they’ll likely be turning to Thomas Greiss as Jaroslav Halak is sidelined with an injury. This could end up being the biggest factor in this series as Halak has been a pretty good postseason performer in his career and has the talent to steal any game. With him out, lots of pressure shifts to Greiss and Chris Gibson if called upon.

On the Panthers’ side of things, this team may have been the best surprise of the year from start to finish. Dale Tallon, the architect of Chicago’s 2010 Cup-winning team, is working his magic again in south Florida. His compilation of young talent mixed with skilled and experienced veterans such as Jagr, Campbell, and Luongo have proven to be a solid formula all year long and led the Panthers to the Atlantic Division crown. The additions of Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell have worked out quite well so far and give the Panthers decent forward depth from nearly top to bottom. On the blue line they have a solid top three defensemen, but after that they go downhill just a bit. They will need their top two defensive pairs to stay strong for them to remain the better team in this series. Even if the Florida defense does begin to falter, they have one of the game’s top goaltenders standing between the pipes to back them up.

Ultimately, the Panthers are the better team in this series in nearly every aspect, most importantly in net. The Islanders will need to play their best hockey of the year to reel off four more wins.

-Florida wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Islanders – 84.5% PK; Panthers – 2.44 GAA

DRW Logo vs. TampaBayLightning_LOGO

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

On the one hand we have a Red Wings team that just clinched their twenty-fifth consecutive playoff berth. On the other, a Lightning squad looking to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. First things first though for the latter of the two. Detroit will not be an easy out. They are no longer led by head coach Mike Babcock, but the same mentality still exists in that locker room. Guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Richards, and Kronwall who have all been here before many, many times know what it takes to win in the playoffs. When you add in the youth of players such as Dylan Larkin, this team has a nice combination of experience and fresh legs. And despite them barely making the postseason, the Red Wings have pretty good forward depth, which is always a must in the postseason. They ranked 8th this season in goals scored per game. Defensively they ran into some trouble while finishing 17th in goals against average, but this team still has the ability to turn in strong defensive performances. What once seemed like a foregone conclusion is now anything but: who starts in goal for Game 1? Given the minutes Jimmy Howard played down the stretch, don’t be shocked if it’s him in net and not Petr Mrazek, who started 49 games this year.

As for the Lightning, they are returning to the playoffs with *mostly* the same team they had last year at this time. The two big differences, and they’re big ones, are the absence of captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and defenseman Anton Stralman (broken leg). Neither player is expected to return to the lineup this spring, although the odds are better for Stamkos. The question with this team now is whether or not they can overcome those two losses to still be successful in the playoffs. You can’t replace Steven Stamkos from within, although Jonathan Drouin was recalled to take his roster spot. And in the case of the Lightning, they have no actual replacement for Stralman either. Can they still win a series? Of course. They still have some really solid forward depth that can score at a frequent pace, and they still have Victor Hedman leading the defense. Also, they own one of the league’s best netminders in Ben Bishop who can single handedly win a series. While losing Stamkos and Stralman hurts, big time, it’s not the end of the world for Tampa Bay, or at least not in the first round.

I think we’ll see a very competitive series between these two much like we did a year ago. In the end, I think goaltending is the deciding factor. You could say that in just about any series, but with uncertainty for the Wings in that area and the opposite for the Lightning, it will play a big role in this series.

-Tampa Bay wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Red Wings – 22nd in penalty minutes; Lightning – Bishop 2.06 GAA (1st in NHL, minimum 40 GP)

161 vs. 161

Season Series: Tied, 2-2

This could potentially end up being the best series of the first round in the East if everything goes right. Beginning with the team from Philly, the Flyers rode a hot wave through the last month or so of the season to earn themselves the East’s last wild card spot. They have been getting production all year long from the likes of Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, as was expected. What wasn’t necessarily expected was the sudden emergence of Brayden Schenn as a point-producer (career high 59 points), or Shayne Gostisbehere as one of the league’s best offensive d-men as a rookie (46 points). Offensive depth has been an issue for the Flyers this year, but the increased and added production from those two players are a huge reason why this team is in the playoffs. To now go on and win in the playoffs, they’ll need contributions from top to bottom. This is a team that ranked 22nd in goals per game, so they’ll either need pucks to start going in the net more regularly, or their defense (12th in GAA) will need to get even better, which isn’t out of the question. Steve Mason, who started 17 of the team’s final 18 games in net, is another major reason this team made the playoffs. He has had spurts here and there where he is incredibly tough to score on. The Flyers will need that to happen again starting now.

Taking on the Flyers is this year’s President’s Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals. The Caps closed out their season with a whopping 120 points and really don’t appear to have many flaws in their game. To find support for that statement, look no further than the fact that Washington ranked second league-wide in both goals per game and fewest goals against per game, and led the NHL with a +59 goal differential. That’s a deadly combination regardless of how you look at it. Alex Ovechkin reached the 50 goal plateau for the seventh time in his career, and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in points with 77. Offensively, this may be the deepest and most dangerous team in hockey. While that’s all nice, the Capitals are one of the strongest defensive teams in the league as well. They are fully healthy on their blue line, led by a top four of Alzner, Niskanen, Orpik, and Carlson, and have a young d-man in Dmitry Orlov who took his game up to another level this year on both sides of the puck. Then you have that guy standing in the blue paint who tied Martin Brodeur for the single-season win record with 48 to go with only 9 regulation losses. Braden Holtby also finished 6th in goals against average, and 8th in save percentage. Needless to say, Washington is pretty stacked everywhere you look.

Having said all of that, the Flyers are a tough team to play against almost every night. They have virtually zero pressure on them as everyone expects the Capitals to play deep into the postseason. The Philly faithful also give the Flyers one of the best home-ice advantages in hockey. I’m expecting this series to be a close one, with the possibility of a huge upset.

-Washington wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Flyers – 5th in shots per game; Capitals – 5th ranked PP, 2nd ranked PK

144 vs. 174

Season Series: Penguins won, 3-1

It feels like these two meet every year in the playoffs, and here we are again. The Rangers, Eastern Conference champions just two seasons ago, and runner up last year, are looking to make another deep playoff push this spring. They added Eric Staal at the trade deadline, which has worked out pretty well to this point, and own one of the deepest forward groups of any team in the playoffs. That being said, their top six is not as lethal as most other teams’ top six. They don’t have an Ovechkin, Kane, Perry, Giroux, and so on. They do have Rick Nash, but he once again underperformed this year and, despite last year, does not have a great track record in the postseason. What tends to win games for the Rangers this time of year is their defense and goaltending. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be without their top defenseman and captain, Ryan McDonagh, for at least the beginning of the first round. This means guys like Girardi, Marc Staal, Yandle, and Klein will pick up more minutes and be heavily relied upon against a potent offense in Pittsburgh. Henrik Lundqvist will for sure have his hands full in net, but like we’ve seen in the past, is more than capable of getting the job done.

For Pittsburgh, they’ll be without Evgeni Malkin for likely the whole first round. He is about four weeks into what is supposed to be a six to eight week recovery from an “upper-body” injury. Despite his absence, the Penguins caught fire in the final weeks of the regular season and landed second in the Metropolitan Division. Sidney Crosby, after a slow start to the season, finished third league-wide in points (85) and is looking like his old self again. The Penguins also have Phil Kessel this time around, who has been a big part of Pittsburgh’s offensive success this year (3rd in NHL in goals per game as a team). Where Pittsburgh gets thin is their bottom two forward lines and 4-6 defensemen. It could be repeated a million times and still be a valid point: depth is crucial in the playoffs. In Pittsburgh’s case, they lack good enough depth to be considered a strong Cup contender. Add in that Marc-Andre Fleury is recovering from a concussion (he could play Game 1), and the Penguins may be in trouble.

This series is a tough one to decide on. You’ve got a deep team in the Rangers who are without their top d-man and captain going against a not as deep, but top heavy team in the Penguins. If New York can keep Crosby in check, they’ll win the series for sure.

-New York wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Rangers – 26th in PK%; Penguins – 2nd in CF%

WESTERN CONFERENCE

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Season Series: Stars won, 4-1

Finally we get a matchup of the old North Stars versus the North Stars’ Minnesota-replacement, the Wild. Minnesota comes into this one as losers of five straight games to close out the regular season. If it wasn’t for Colorado losing their last six games of the season, this could be a different matchup. But here we are nonetheless. It was revealed within the last few days that Zach Parise, Minnesota’s leading scorer in the regular season, could miss an indefinite amount of time due to aggravating a herniated disk in his back. This is about the worst news the Wild could have gotten as there is no way they win a series without Parise. But, to try and move on they’ll need big contributions from players like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Jason Pominville, etc. There’s no easy way to replace a Zach Parise-type player. Also, add in that Vanek may not even play in the first round and that Erik Haula is “iffy” for Game 1, and you begin to see a big problem for Minnesota. They’ll have to heavily rely on their defense and Devan Dubnyk to slow down the Stars’ offense.

Speaking of the Stars, they finished the year as champions of arguably the best division in hockey while leading the NHL in goals scored. Jamie Benn ended the season with 89 points (good for 2nd in the league), and Tyler Seguin, despite missing 10 games, finished with 73. However, it is unclear whether Seguin will be ready for round one due to an Achilles injury that has kept him sidelined since March. Even if he does miss this series, or the majority of it, the Stars should still be in good shape. What Dallas has to worry most about is their goaltending. Their team save percentage is .904, which is tied for the 4th worst in the NHL. It will likely be Kari Lehtonen starting in Game 1 for the Stars over Antti Niemi, but nothing is official as of yet. Luckily for Dallas, they are going against a Minnesota team that finished 18th in goals per game and will be without their top scorer. While Dallas doesn’t have a ton of postseason experience, the addition of players such as Sharp, Oduya, and Spezza who have all either won the Cup or played deep into the postseason should help them get through some rough patches.

The Wild are already in a hole in this series due to injuries, and they’ll need lots of fortunate occurrences to come out on top.

-Dallas wins series, 4-1.

STAT TO KNOW: Wild – 27th in PK%; Stars – 4th in PP%

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Season Series: Blues won, 3-2

This series may be the single best matchup in the entire first round of the playoffs. The two teams met five times in the regular season, and three of those times the game was decided in overtime or a shootout. For the Blackhawks, they’ll be without Duncan Keith for Game 1 as he finishes up his six game suspension. Other than that, everyone else is ready to go. Their second line of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane cooled off a bit in March, but has since regained their early season form. Kane ended the year leading the league in points and finished with 46 goals. Panarin led all rookies in goals (30), assists (47), and points (77). Those two alone can win a series if they continue to fire on all cylinders. The top line of Ladd, Toews, and Hossa started to increase their production until Hossa went down with back-to-back injuries, but now they’re all healthy and will need to create offense yet again. Where Chicago has the potential to make themselves the Cup favorite lies within their bottom two lines. If they get production from their fourth line again like they did last spring with the same three players, and if their third line continues to create chances like they have been as of late, they’ll be an extremely tough out for any team. Their weakness is their defense. They have yet to find a way to fully replace Johnny Oduya and have had a revolving door on their bottom pair. Corey Crawford will likely be tested in this one, and he’ll somehow have to regain his mid-season form to help his team advance.

The Blues come into the first round with everyone back and healthy. They finished the year ranked 4th in fewest goals against average, and 1st in team save percentage. Obviously, this is a team that relies on keeping the puck out of their net to be successful. When you look at their forward lines, you definitely notice that they have really good depth, but they lack that top-end firepower. Sure, Tarasenko was a 40-goal scorer this season, but after that they do not match up with Chicago in terms of offense. Where St. Louis is going to win or lose this series is defense. Can they stop Chicago’s offense, or limit it, for four games out of seven? We’ll see. They definitely have the defensive corps and goaltending to do it, but actually doing it successfully for a whole playoff series is not easy. If they can shutdown the Blackhawks’ 2nd ranked powerplay, St. Louis will have a good shot at winning this series. However, while the Blues do have the league’s third best penalty kill, they have a tendency to end up in the box as they ranked 9th in penalty minutes this year. In what will be a physical series, the Blues are going to have to not be dumb and take stupid penalties that will give the Blackhawks more powerplay time.

I’m expecting a bruising series here, and one that could potentially go seven games. In the end though, Chicago’s ability to score along with their experience in the playoffs should put them over the top.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Blackhawks – 2nd in PP%; Blues – 5th in Faceoff %

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Season Series: Predators won, 2-1

What we have here is a matchup of two of the NHL’s best teams over the course of the second half of this season. Nashville started the year pretty slow, then they acquired Ryan Johansen in exchange for Seth Jones and everything seemed to turn around. They rank near the middle of the pack in most offensive and defensive categories, yet they still have decent forward depth and one of the league’s best sets of top four defensemen. Given the Ducks’ offensive capabilities, the Predators will need that defense to elevate their game to the next level. Pekka Rinne, who had a subpar season by his standards, cannot take a night off at this point. His team will need to ride on his shoulders from time to time in this series. If Nashville can get timely scoring, especially from their top guys such as Forsberg and Neal, they’ll have a shot in this series.

For Anaheim, they simply just need to play their game. They have the edge in talent and depth over Nashville, they’re one of the top teams in possession (52.4% Corsi rating), and they are the top team on both the powerplay and penalty kill. They have suffered some injuries to players such as David Perron, Rickard Rakell, and Kevin Bieksa, and it’s unclear which, if any, of those players will see ice time in this series. Where they could run into problems is on defense. The Ducks run a little thin in this department, and a good offensive team could potentially give them trouble.

On paper, the Ducks should have this thing locked up. They have the talent and statistical edge over Nashville. However, anything could always happen.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-2.

STAT TO KNOW: Predators – 1st in fewest shots against/game; Ducks – 1st in PP% and PK%

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Season Series: Sharks won, 3-2

Who doesn’t love another good rivalry in the first round? Next to Chicago – St. Louis, this is the next most heated matchup of the opening round. The Sharks weren’t even really supposed to be a playoff team this season, but General Manager Doug Wilson kept his core players intact and it has paid off so far. Joe Thornton (82 points) had what many are calling a Hart Trophy-worthy season if not for Patrick Kane, and he was closely followed by Joe Pavelski (78) and Brent Burns (75). What was most impressive about the Sharks this season in both a good and bad sense was the fact that they led the NHL in road victories with 28, but had the fewest home wins (18) of any team to make the playoffs. For a team that has always had a great home ice advantage, their home woes this season are mind boggling. Will it be an issue in the playoffs? Maybe, except that they do not have home ice advantage in this series, which may benefit them. Aside from that, the Sharks rank 4th in goals per game and 10th in goals against average. Their blue line is surprisingly deep, and they have two solid goalies. Martin Jones appears ready to get the Game 1 start, but if he falters early look for James Reimer to replace him.

Standing in the Sharks’ way is the team that has won two of the last four Stanley Cups: the Kings. This is what Los Angeles lives for. They aren’t a great regular season team, but as soon as the playoffs begin, they become one of the best teams in hockey. They have the depth at forward and the right goaltender to go all the way, but for once it’s the defense that may hurt them. That’s not to say that their defensive unit is a bad one by any means, but they aren’t what they were during their previous two Cup runs. Aside from that, L.A. did lead the NHL in possession numbers this season and ranked 3rd in shots per 60 minutes of play. If they can find their playoff form again after a year off from the postseason, look out.

The Sharks always give L.A. problems. They were up 3-0 on the Kings two years ago in the playoffs, but ended up losing four straight. I’m not saying that exact same thing will take place again, but the Kings are in for a tough series.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-3.

STAT TO KNOW: Sharks – 4th in goals per game; Kings – 1st in possession

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NHL Pacific Division preview

As is the case before each season, I’ll go through and give a real quick preview of each team and division in the NHL, followed by my prediction as to how I think the standings will look at season’s end. This seemingly gets tougher each and every year to predict…

First up, the guys out west.

Pacific Division

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Ducks’ 2014-15 record: 51-24-7 (109 points)

The Ducks come into this season fresh off another Game 7 defeat in the playoffs after having finished the season as the top team in the Western Conference during the regular season. They have been one of the best regular season teams in recent years, but just haven’t been able to get it done in the postseason. This summer, they added Carl Hagelin, Chris Stewart, and Kevin Bieksa, among a couple others, to try and get themselves over that playoff hurdle. In the meantime, they traded away Emerson Etem and lost Matt Belesky to free agency. I have no doubt they’ll be near the league lead in points again this year, but the playoffs are what really matter. How they perform in April, May, and possibly June is what this team will be judged on.

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Coyotes’ 2014-15 record: 24-50-8 (56 points)

Only one team finished last season with fewer points than Arizona. Needless to say, it was a long season in the desert. But, that kind of finish did yield them the number three overall pick in the draft this summer, where they drafted Connor McDavid’s teammate from Erie, Dylan Strome. Arizona has not yet decided what they’ll do with Strome for this season, and he may end up being sent back to the OHL for another year. That’s probably not the worst idea; that or placing him in the AHL. You don’t want to rush a potential future star into the NHL. Another youngster to keep an eye on is Max Domi, who should be on the Coyotes’ opening night roster. Other than that though, there’s not much going on with this team other than the fact they re-signed Antoine Vermette after his short vacation to Chicago. All in all, they’re most likely still a last place finisher in this division, but should see a rise in their point total.

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Flames’ 2014-15 record: 45-30-7 (97 points)

I find it hard to not love what this team is doing. They completely exceeded all expectations last season and found themselves in the postseason where they incredibly advanced to the second round. This offseason, they added Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik to bolster their depth at on the blue line and at forward. Players like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Markus Granlund undoubtedly gained extremely valuable experience at a young age from last year’s playoff run, which will only help them as they progress into this season. The Flames will also have their captain Mark Giordano back after he was forced to miss the end of last season and the playoffs due to injury. Assuming Bob Hartley will get his guys to play with as much heart and effort as they did last season, I have a hard time seeing this team missing the playoffs this year.

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Oilers’ 2014-15 record: 24-44-14 (62 points)

Like the Flames, it’s tough to not be excited about the Oilers. After multiple years in a row of seeing their young talent not do much of anything, it finally appears as though Edmonton may have their act together now under the guidance of Peter Chiarelli as the new GM, and new head coach Todd McLellan. They won the draft lottery this past spring and subsequently chose the second coming of Wayne Gretzky in Connor McDavid, who should no doubt make an immediate impact on the team on and off the ice. They should also have 2014 first round pick (third overall) Leon Draisaitl making his NHL debut on opening night alongside McDavid. That pairing has shown some good chemistry throughout training camp and the preseason, and could be a real “thing” this season. The Oilers knew they had to improve their blue line this summer, and so they went out and signed Andrej Sekera to go along with what is a very young, but talented, group of defensemen. Heck, their captain Andrew Ference may not even make the top six d-men! (We all know he will, but should he?) Edmonton also traded for Cam Talbot from the New York Rangers. For the first time in his career, he should be getting the majority of the starts in net. When looking at this team, it seemingly has all the makings of a surprise playoff team.

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Kings’ 2014-15 record: 40-27-15 (95 points)

A year after winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, the Kings were watching the playoffs at home from their couches. They even admitted that they were “coasting” through the regular season and saving their energy for the playoffs. The only problem was that they didn’t flip their switch in time and missed the postseason all together. Had they made the playoffs, they would have been the favorite in just about any matchup they ended up with. But that’s history and now we’re talking about this season. They acquired Milan Lucic this summer from Boston, and also signed d-man Christian Ehrhoff to add to what is already a strong blue line. They lost the likes of Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, and Slava Voynov due to off-ice issues. When you sit back and really examine L.A.’s roster, it’s not that eye-popping. They aren’t the team they were two years ago, but they’re still a good team that should contend for a playoff spot. One way in which they for sure miss the postseason again is if they continue to lose so many overtime/shootout games. That killed them last year.

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Sharks’ 2014-15 record: 40-33-9 (89 points)

The Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time last year since the 2002-2003 season, and don’t appear to be headed back to the postseason this year either. They traded away their number one netminder, Antti Niemi, and acquired Martin Jones to replace him. Jones has never been a starter in the NHL, so the Sharks are really taking a gamble on that one. At forward, San Jose still owns some of the biggest names in hockey (Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Couture), but after them they take a hit. For the Sharks to see success this year, they’ll need guys like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, and Tommy Wingels to take a big next step in their games. They are going to need to score lots of goals because their defense runs rather thin on the blue line, plus they have a goalie in net who has never been a number one in the NHL.

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Canucks’ 2014-15 record: 48-29-5 (101 points)

Much like Calgary, but not to the same extent, Vancouver exceeded most expectations last season and ended the year as a playoff team with over 100 points. However, they lost Kevin Bieksa and Eddie Lack this summer, along with some others, and really don’t appear to be a playoff team. At least not on paper. Ryan Miller will have to play out of his mind this year to give his team a chance at the postseason, and they’ll also need some youngsters to put up some big point totals right away. The Sedin twins are beginning to creep up there in age, and one has to wonder how much longer they’ll be able to carry the team. As it is right now, I think this is one team who made the playoffs last year that for sure won’t this year.

The Pacific Division as a whole appears to be stronger this year than in recent years with the sudden improvement both up in Calgary and Edmonton. While I see the Ducks remaining the division champs, it will likely be up for grabs after that.

Predicted standings:

  1. Ducks 2. Flames 3. Kings 4. Oilers 5. Sharks 6. Canucks 7. Coyotes

Central Division preview and West playoff teams

Pacific Division preview

Over the next week or so, I’ll be going over my previews/predictions for each division in the NHL. We’ll start now with the Pacific Division, and then hit the Central, Metropolitan, and Atlantic.

PACIFIC DIVISION

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Anaheim: The Ducks finished last season with 116 points, which was good for first place in the brutal Western Conference and second in the entire league. This offseason, they’ve only seemingly gotten better. The additions of Ryan Kesler, Nate Thompson, and Dany Heatley give Anaheim one of the NHL’s most potent group of centers and forwards. The loss of Teemu Selanne will not be as big as some people may expect. He’ll be more missed in the locker room than on the ice. While the Ducks are primed for another dominant season offensively, their defense and goaltending remain a bit suspect. Can Cam Fowler take his game to the next level? Will Andersen and Gibson get the job done between the pipes? Those are the two question marks surrounding this team.

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Arizona: It’s weird calling them the “Arizona” Coyotes now, but it is what it is. They ended the 2013-14 season with 89 points and did not make the playoffs. If they did anything this summer, it was that they got worse. They let go of Mike Ribeiro and did not make any notable free agent signings. They play in a tough division with some elite offenses all around them, which is an area that they are now lacking in. Defensively, the Coyotes have some good players in Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but after them they fall off a cliff. Mike Smith always has the ability to win his team a game on any given night, so they do have that going for them.

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Calgary: I think a lot of people were somewhat surprised by the Flames last season. Earning 77 points is not going to impress many people, but I do believe most had the Flames finishing with a lower total. This team is still in the rebuilding process and will not be a playoff contender (especially in the West) for at least a couple more years, but that doesn’t mean we should all ignore what goes on in Calgary. Young guns like Sean Monahan and goalie Karri Ramo will be looking to make the step to the next level in their respective games. Newcomers Mason Raymond and Jonas Hiller should make a good impact on the Flames this year. The signing of Hiller was one of the most interesting transactions this summer.

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Edmonton: I was really disappointed with how things unfolded in Edmonton last season. In last year’s season preview, I predicted the Oilers to take one of the two wild card spots in the West. Obviously that didn’t happen as Edmonton finished last in the Conference with 67 points. This year, I’ll make the wiser decision and predict that they miss the playoffs again. Their offense has some very young and potentially elite talent in the forms of Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle. It’s their defense that will kill them again. They signed Nikita Nikitin this summer, but that won’t be nearly enough. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth should have their hands full in goal all season.

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Los Angeles: The Kings are coming into the 2014-15 season fresh off their second Stanley Cup title in the last three seasons. They have basically the same roster back this year as the one they had last year, except now they’ll have Marian Gaborik for the entire year. What’s interesting about the Kings is that they never seem to put together a great regular season. They always finish with a point total somewhere in the mid-90’s, or in last year’s case exactly 100. Once the playoffs begin, then they take their game to the next level. I’ll say that we see more of the same this year. They might finish with more than 100 points this time around, but I don’t see them being one of the top two or even three seeds in the West. The playoffs are a different story…

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San Jose: The Sharks will return this season with most of the same roster that we saw last year, minus Dan Boyle. People are calling the situation in San Jose a “rebuilding process,” but I don’t quite see it that way. The Sharks have not unloaded their top players, and they have a few young guys that should only be getting better this season, like Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. Goaltending ended up costing the Sharks in the playoffs last year when they went up 3-0 on the Kings in the first round, only to drop the next four games. Antti Niemi has proven that he can be a top-end goalie in the NHL, but he needs to play like one this season. Brent Burns will make the move back to defense this season where he started his career in an attempt to fill the void left by Dan Boyle. I like this change by the Sharks, and I think they’ll without a doubt be a playoff team yet again.

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO

Vancouver: The Canucks have made it clear that they are now in the process of rebuilding their roster. They traded Roberto Luongo away at last year’s trade deadline, and they dealt Ryan Kesler to the Ducks earlier this summer. They also signed Ryan Miller to be their number one netminder, which surprised me and many other people. Why sign a big name goalie like Miller for a good amount of money if you don’t really plan on contending for a few years to come? It’s an answer I won’t soon find out, but I won’t stay up at night worrying about it either. I’d expect Vancouver to finish with a point total somewhere in the mid to low 80’s this season.

PREDICTED STANDINGS:

1. Ducks 2. Kings 3. Sharks 4. Vancouver 5. Phoenix 6. Edmonton 7. Flames

Keep checking back for my previews on the rest of the NHL.

NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals prediction

It has been a long time since the Western Conference was once as strong as it currently is. I cannot remember the last time that there were at least three, four, maybe even five teams from one conference who you could consider a serious Stanley Cup contender. Yet that is what we have in the Western Conference this year. I believe there are three sure candidates in the West to win the Cup this year: Anaheim, Chicago, and St. Louis. Teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Colorado could easily be considered strong Cup contenders as well, however I wouldn’t place them in the same class as those first three teams.

Having said that, let’s get to the predictions.

1-4 Matchup:

7327531 vs. Minnesota-Wild-Wallpaper-

Let’s start with Minnesota. The Wild finished the regular season with 98 points, good for seventh most in the West. They finished seventh in the entire NHL in GA/G with a 2.42 average. Their defense is the strongest part of their game, and they will need that to be the case against Colorado. It looks like trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov will be their starting netminder for Game One, due to injuries to both Backstrom and Harding during the regular season. Since coming to the Wild, Bryzgalov has been very good. He is 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts. On defense, Ryan Suter led the league for the second year in a row in playing time per game at 29:24. That’s basically half the game that he’s on the ice. While he is without question one of the premier defensmen in the game, you have to wonder if he isn’t just about burnt out. Playing half a game every game this year (he played in all 82), as well as playing for Team USA in the Olympics is a good recipe for exhaustion. The Wild, and Suter, are going to need the rest of their d-men to pick up their play and take some of the weight off of Suter’s shoulders. On offense, this is where the Wild have been challenged. They finished the regular season ranked twenty fourth in goals per game at 2.43, which is not good. Jason Pominville was their leading scorer recording 30 goals and 30 assists (60 points), while guys like Parise, Koivu, and Heatley had down seasons while also battling injuries.

As for Colorado, the Avalanche are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, recording 112 points to finish third overall in the NHL. I think it’s safe to say no one saw that coming in September. Their strongest aspect of their game is their offense, where they finished fourth in the league in goals per game at 2.99. Matt Duchene led the way for the Avs by finishing with 70 points (23G, 47A). Unfortunately for Colorado, however, Duchene has been out with a knee injury for a few weeks now and is not expected to return to the lineup until late in round one, if not later than that. On top of that, Jan Hejda, Tyson Barrie, John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, and Cory Sarich are all injured as well. The severity of Hejda’s injury is still a bit unknown, and he could miss the beginning of this series. Same goes for John Mitchell, who was diagnosed with a concussion. On defense, the Avalanche are young and inexperienced in the postseason (you could say the same about their forwards). If Hejda and Sarich miss any significant playoff time, the Avs could be in trouble on the blue line. Their defensmen are quite talented and quick, especially Erik Johnson, but their lack of experience in the playoffs and pressure-packed games worries me. They finished in the middle of the pack in GA/G, fifteenth overall, at 2.63. Semyon Varlamov, coming off his best season in the NHL, will need to continue his strong play in net. He finished the year 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA. If Varlamov stays hot against the Wild, Minnesota and their struggling offense could be in trouble.

I think the biggest factor in this series is going to be the health of the Avalanche. They will be without Duchene for most, if not all of the series, but how soon will the other injured players be able to play? Also, will the lack of experience on the Avalanche come back to haunt them? These things concern me with Colorado, but their skill and speed make me believe they will get by Minnesota despite the injuries. Don’t be surprised though if they lose the first game and begin to panic.

-Colorado wins series, 4-2.

2-3 Matchup:

st-louis-blues-logo vs. 56

Could you ask for a better first round series? Two weeks ago, no one would have thought these two teams would meet in the first round, but thanks to the Blues’ six-game losing streak to finish out the regular season, here we are. The Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, have had a very up and down second half to their season. Following the Olympic break, they have been mostly a .500 team. They ended the year with 107 points, but still won’t have home ice advantage in the this first round. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both missed the last few weeks of the season due to injury, but both are expected back and healthy for Game One in St. Louis. Chicago’s greatest strength is their offense. They were second in goals per game this year with a 3.18 average, and they had five players finish the season with 60 points or more, led by Patrick Sharp with 78. On defense, Duncan Keith was arguably the best defensmen in hockey this season (6G, 55A), and he is considered the favorite to win the Norris Trophy. Brent Seabrook has had a good, but not great year despite what you might hear from TV broadcasters. The unsung hero of the Hawks’ defensive corps is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He and his partner Johnny Oduya get the toughest defensive assignment every game, going up against the opponents best offensive line. These two will need to play like they did one year ago at this time to beat the Blues. In goal, Corey Crawford is coming off of a decent season in which he had a 2.26 GAA. He will be coming into the playoffs following maybe his best stretch of the season. Guys like Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, and Kris Versteeg are going to have to produce this postseason for the Hawks to be successful. The depth of the Blackhawks could be what wins or loses them this series.

The Blues are skating backwards into the playoffs as losers of six straight to finish the season. I can guarantee you that the last thing they wanted was to fall to second in the division and have to open the playoffs against the defending champs and longtime rival Blackhawks. The Blues have prided themselves on their defense this year, and rightfully so. They finished the season third in GA/G with a 2.29 average. Alex Pietrangelo has earned himself some consideration for the Norris Trophy, as he leads one of the best blue lines in hockey. He and Jay Bouwmeester have been one of the league’s best pairings all season. In net, the Blues traded for Ryan Miller at the deadline, and he has been both good and bad for them. Since coming to the Blues, he is 10-8-1 with a 2.47 GAA. Backup netminder Brian Elliott finished the year 18-6-2 with a 1.96 GAA, so look for the Blues to turn to him if Miller struggles early in this series. Offensively is where the potential problems begin for this team. They finished the year ranked 7th in goals per game, but are entering the playoffs having scored just TEN goals in their last nine games. In those nine games, they were shutout four times, and lost the final six. That cannot continue if they want any chance at beating Chicago. The Blues did finish the year with five players scoring over 20 goals, but their offense has disappeared lately. Before the season, I said that the Blues’ lack of offensive firepower is what may hold them back against teams like Chicago this year, and now that theory will be put to the test.

This series is hands-down the most intriguing of all first round series this year. Both teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but one will go home early. I’d expect the Blues to try and use their physical and often dirty play to wear down the Hawks in the first couple of games. Chicago has to stick to their style of play and not try and become a more physical team than they really are. If Kane and Toews are in fact 100 percent for this series and can remain healthy, I think the Hawks have the edge. After all, since 2010, no team has been better on the road in the postseason than Chicago, and they’ll need at least one road win to win this series.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

1-4 Matchup:

ANAHEIM_DUCKS_LOGO vs. New_Dallas_Stars

I said in my season preview back before the season began that people were underrating the Dallas Stars and that they could be a potential playoff contender. Well look, here they are. Dallas enters the playoffs with fewer regular season points than any other team to qualify for the postseason, but that doesn’t really mean much to them. Surprisingly, or maybe not to some, the Stars finished the season ranked tenth in the entire NHL in goals per game, thanks in large part to Tyler Seguin (37G, 47A) and Jamie Benn (34G, 45A). These two have been one of the league’s best duos all season long, and I would not want to have to try and defend them in a seven game series. Unfortunately for the Stars, there is a major drop off after those two. The next closest player on the team to Benn in points was defenseman Alex Goligoski, who had 42. This is possibly the Stars’ biggest problem. After their top line with Benn and Seguin, their offense really flattens out. Their defensive unit is rather weak. After trading Robidas to the Ducks, ironically, they were left with Goligoski as their top blue liner. Besides him, Trevor Daley is their next best d-man, and after that it’s really a toss up. Going against a potent Ducks offense could spell disaster for the Dallas defense. Kari Lehtonen, who in my opinion is the most underrated goalie in hockey, will have to stay strong in net and single handedly win a couple games for the Stars if they want to advance.

The Ducks come into the postseason having finished first in the West in points (116), and second in the NHL behind the Bruins. They led the league in goals per game (3.21), and finished ninth in GA/G (2.48). They have what many consider to be the best line in hockey, consisting of both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf, who finished with 87 points, is considered to be a Hart Trophy candidate as the league’s MVP. Perry finished right behind him with 43 goals (second in the NHL) and 82 points. I think it’s safe to say that offense shouldn’t be much of a problem for this team. On defense, the Ducks are led by Cam Fowler, who finished 36 points on the year. The problem with the Anaheim defense is much like the same problem Colorado has. They have a lot of skill, but not very much experience. The Ducks made the playoffs last year, but lost to Detroit in seven games in the first round. The inexperience on their blue line could be a problem, especially in the later rounds. Their goaltender, Jonas Hiller, finished the season with a 2.48 GAA. His backup Frederik Andersen, however, ended the season with a 20-5-0 record and a 2.29 GAA. While Hiller is their definite number one, look for the Ducks to yank him if he stumbles out of the gates. Neither Anaheim goalie has much playoff experience, which may or may not be costly this postseason.

I think the Stars may win a game here, but for the most part I expect Anaheim to win this series rather easily.

-Anaheim wins series, 4-1.

2-3 Matchup:

crestonwht_rgb vs. 940-couture-logan

Next to the Blackhawks-Blues series, I think this is the second best series of the entire first round, and it is sure to be a physical one. The Kings ended the year pretty strong and finished with 100 points. Many, myself included, thought they would have had a better year than this, but 100 points is still 100 points, especially in the Western Conference. The Kings are led by their defense and goalie. LA has what may be the best set of defensemen in hockey, led by Drew Doughty. They finished first in the NHL in fewest GA/G, and allowed the fewest total goals in the league. I’ve always believed that defense wins championships (last year, the Blackhawks allowed the least amount of goals during the regular season and won the Stanley Cup). Jonathan Quick, while injured most of the first half of the season, finished with a 2.07 GAA, which is ridiculously good, but only managed to have a 27-17-4 record. That really doesn’t compute, unless you look at LA’s offense. They finished twenty-sixth in goals per game this year. When you have a defense and goaltending as good as they do, you need to score more goals than this. Anze Kopitar led the Kings with 70 points, followed by Jeff Carter with 50. That’s a twenty-point difference there and something the Kings would have liked to have been better. They added Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, and since then he has registered 5 goals and 11 assists in 19 games. He should help boost LA’s scoring heading into this series, and they’re going to need it.

San Jose comes into this series after a 111-point regular season. This team always seems to finish near the top of the conference year in and year out, so give credit to their coaching staff and front office. The Sharks ranked sixth this season in goals per game, and fifth in goals-against per game. That’s a very good combination for obvious reasons. Three players on this team finished the year with at least 70 points (Pavelski, Thornton, and Marleau), and I think Logan Couture could have reached the 70-point plateau had he been healthy all year. Their top two lines are extremely dangerous and consist of some of the best players in the league when it comes to winning faceoffs. It’s their bottom two lines that may be troublesome for the Sharks as they often lack offensive production. Their defensive unit is one of the better ones in the West, as all six defensemen are smart, responsible, and possess a lot of playoff experience. Plus, they were a huge reason for the team finishing fifth in GA/G. Dan Boyle (37 years old) was the leading point-getter on the Sharks blue line this year, and I wonder how he will hold up in an extremely physical playoffs series like this one against LA. He already went down with a concussion earlier in the season, and I’m sure he’ll be a primary target of the Kings. In net, Antti Niemi ended the year tied for second in the NHL in wins and had a 2.39 GAA. Yet, many Sharks fans have been critical of Niemi during the second half of the year due to some lackluster performances. Still, Niemi is one of the league’s best goalies and did win a Stanley Cup not too long ago. If the Sharks’ offense can find a way to beat Jonathan Quick, and if Antti Niemi can be even just good in net, I think they’ll win this series.

This series all comes down to goaltending. Will Jonathan Quick return to his annual playoff form and carry the Kings to the second round? Or will he be human like he was in the Conference Finals last season? If Quick shuts down the Sharks like he has so many times before, the Kings will win. However, I think San Jose is better than they were last year when LA knocked them out in seven games and they will find a way to beat Quick this year.

-San Jose wins series, 4-3.

Check back tomorrow for my Eastern Conference predictions.

Blues acquire Miller, Ott; Pressure on West’s best

Philadelphia Flyers v Buffalo SabresYesterday the St. Louis Blue traded Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. It had been rumored for quite a while that Miller was on the trade block and that St. Louis seemed to be his likely destination. Steve Ott and Chris Stewart appear to have been an “add-ons” during the trade discussions yesterday. Many believed that if the Blues could acquire Miller or any high-end goalie that they would put themselves in a great position to win the Cup. Well, now they have Miller and most analysts believe the Blues are the team to beat in the NHL. I’m not so sure that I agree 100 percent with that, but they definitely are one of the top 3 teams in the league.

With St. Louis trading for Miller, they also put the pressure on the rest of the top teams in the Western Conference to get better prior to the passing of the March 5th trade deadline. Teams like Chicago, Anaheim, L.A., and San Jose now need to take a good look at themselves and ask the question, “Are we good enough to come out of the West and reach the Stanley Cup Final?” St. Louis put themselves in a spot where they now believe they are good enough, and it’s up to the other top teams to respond.

Stan Bowman, Chicago’s GM, was asked last night while on the NHL Network if he is planning on making any moves at the deadline. To sum up his response, he said that he is confident in the team that the Blackhawks have, and brought up the facts that this is basically the same team that won last year’s Cup, and they already went out and traded for Kris Versteeg earlier this year and acquired Peter Regin and Pierre Marc-Bouchard right before the Olympic break.

Because I live in Chicago, I hear mostly everything that Bowman says regarding the Blackhawks. I cannot say the same for the teams out west, so I don’t know what those GM’s have said over the past few days regarding the trade deadline. However, let’s look at what those teams, along with the Blackhawks, may try and look for at the deadline.

L.A. Kings

Drew+Doughty+Jonathan+Quick+MJL-W9uwx26mThe Kings currently find themselves sitting in third place in the Pacific division. Many believed they would finish no lower than second in the division coming into this season. Unfortunately for them, they once again are putting together a somewhat disappointing season. They are second to last in the West in goals-scored this year, which has been a problem for this team over the past few seasons. Looking ahead to the trade deadline, the Kings may want to try and upgrade their depth at left wing, and they may want to add another top three center. Their defense is among the best in the league, as the Kings as a team have allowed the second fewest goals in the NHL. It goes without saying that they’re just fine in net.

San Jose Sharks

San Jose is second in the Pacific at the moment with a 12 point lead over L.A. They are 940-couture-logangetting a healthy Logan Couture back now that the Olympics are over with. He will most likely slide right back into one of the top two center positions, bumping Joe Pavelski back out to the wing where he has played much of this season and on and off throughout his career. Looking at the Sharks depth chart, it couldn’t hurt them to add a skilled winger to the team, but I believe their biggest need is another defenseman. They don’t have a bad defense right now by any means, but their age is what could hurt them if they get deep into the playoffs. They are one of the older blue lines in the west.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are the league’s leading team in points right now, so you wouldn’t really think they need to do a whole lot with their team moving forward. And truthfully, they don’t. If they can go out and somehow trade for a solid top 5 d-man, they would really have themselves img24461606set for a deep, deep playoff run. Jonas Hiller is having a great season so far. He was arguably the best goalie at the Olympics with 2 shutouts there, and he added a league-leading 5th shutout last night against the Blues.

Chicago Blackhawks

The never ending storyline in Chicago isn’t going to end anytime soon. Who can be their number two center? So far this year, Joel Quenneville has tried Michal Handzus, Brandon Pirri, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, and now Peter Regin 139990-330-0in that position. No one seems to be the right fit. It makes it hard for a guy like Patrick Kane who keeps having to adjust to a new center on his line. At the same time, however, this was the same issue facing the Hawks just a year ago, and we all know how last season turned out. I don’t think they will be trading for another center at the deadline. If they do make a trade, it will almost positively be for a depth defenseman. Right now Sheldon Brookbank is their 7th d-man, and the thought of him having to be the guy to step up if one of their top 6 defensmen goes down is scary. Adding a proven guy to their blue line depth would be quietly very important for this team.

You could even throw the Avalanche into this discussion if you wanted to, but I don’t think they will get a top two seed in the Central.

Looking at the West’s top teams right now with Miller and Ott now on the Blues, I think that they are the team to watch out for. Anaheim leads the league in points, but for whatever I’m just not sold on them. Maybe it’s because I don’t get to watch them as often as I do Chicago and St. Louis. The Blues are a rough, physical and big team that can also put the puck in the back of the net just as well as almost any team in the league. Not to mention that they are third in the NHL in fewest goals against.

I would not expect any of the other top teams in the West to make a huge move like the Blues did. For one, those are not easy trades to make. Secondly, I don’t think any top team wants to trade a significant piece of their NHL team (along with prospects) to land a big name player, which is what it would take to do so. Ryan Kesler’s name has come up in trade rumors, but I don’t think he’s going anywhere until this summer, and that’s if he even does get traded.

This should be an interesting deadline in seeing what moves certain teams do and/or don’t make.

NHL playoff race begins

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Now that the Olympics are over, with Canada bringing home the hockey gold, Sweden the silver, Finland the bronze, and the USA dogs (David Backes is literally bringing home two stray dogs he found in Sochi), the NHL season is set to resume itself. Many teams find themselves in the middle of a heated battle just to get into the playoffs, while other teams are fighting for top spots in each conference and division. As has been the case in recent years, it appears we are in for yet another incredible finish to the NHL regular season.

First, here’s a look at the current standings by division:

Atlantic                                   Metropolitan

Boston – 78 pts                        Pittsburgh – 83 pts

Tampa Bay – 71 pts                 N.Y. Rangers – 67 pts

Montreal – 70 pts                      Philadelphia – 66 pts

Toronto – 70 pts                       Columbus – 63 pts

Detroit – 64 pts                         Washington – 63 pts

Ottawa – 63 pts                        Carolina – 61 pts

Florida – 51 pts                         New Jersey – 61 pts

Buffalo – 40 pts                         N.Y. Islanders – 52 pts

Central                                    Pacific

St. Louis – 84 pts                      Anaheim – 87 pts

Chicago – 84pts                        San Jose – 80 pts

Colorado – 79 pts                      Los Angeles – 68 pts

Minnesota – 69 pts                    Phoenix – 64 pts

Dallas – 64 pts                          Vancouver – 63 pts

Winnipeg – 62 pts                     Calgary – 51 pts

Nashville – 60 pts                      Edmonton – 47 pts

159898991_stdIt would appear that the race atop the Central Division could be the most fun to keep an eye on. St. Louis and Chicago are bitter rivals, and getting first place in the Central Division could very well be more important than winning first place in any other division. With the new playoff format, the winner of the Central will play one of the two wild card teams in the West. The team to finish second in the Central will most likely get a first round matchup with Colorado. They are a first round opponent that I would want no part of. Of all teams currently in third place in their respective division, Colorado has the most points (79) by quite a bit (9). They would be leading the Atlantic division by one point.

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Pittsburgh seems to have a stranglehold on the Metropolitan division (I hate that name), but the second and third place spots are up for grabs. With eight teams in the Metropolitan division, just 6 points seperates the second place team (the Rangers) from the seventh place team (the Devils). This will be fun to watch. I think the Rangers will get one of the two remaining top spots in that division, but the other spot is wide open in my opinion. Watch out for Columbus and Washington.

The Atlantic division is shaping up to be a close race as well. Boston seems to be a sure lock for the playoffs assuming they don’t suffer an epic collapse, but after them, everyone else in that divison (aside from Florida and Buffalo) has a shot at making the playoffs. The dt.common.streams.StreamServerRed Wings, currently with 64 points and 6 points behind the third place spot in the division, are trying to make the playoffs for the twenty-third consecutive season. Mike Babcock was recently quoted as saying they “will be in the playoffs.” Knowing Detroit, they will either make the postseason, or fall just a couple points shy. Eight points seperate the number two spot from the six spot in the Atlantic. Notice that Tampa Bay is currently in second place despite being without Steven Stamkos for the past few months.

nhl-playoffs-logo-600x398Out west in the Pacific division, things seem to be a bit more spaced out. There isn’t quite the log-jam that we see in the other divisions. Anaheim, the league’s leading team in points (87), should win that division if they can avoid any key injuries or a major meltdown, which has happened to them in recent years. San Jose sits seven points behind Anaheim, but they have a comfortable twelve-point lead over the third place Kings. Once again, the Kings are putting together a disappointing regular season. They are a team that should theoretically finish in one of the top two spot in their division every year. But, every year they underperform until the playoffs. That is when they step up their game. L.A. has a four-point lead over Phoenix and a five-point lead on Vancouver for the third spot in the division. Calgary and Edmonton are hopeless. If I had to bet, I’d say the top three spots in the Pacific don’t change the rest of the season.

So who ends up with the wild card spots? Well, Toronto and Montreal (each with 70 points) appear to be in good position to get one of the East’s two wild cards. Whichever of those two teams doesn’t get a wild card will probably get the third spot in their division. After that, pretty much any team besides the Islanders, Sabres, and Panthers could be the second wild card team at this point. It’s too hard to predict right now who will win that race.

In the Western Conference, Minnesota currently holds the first wild card spot with 69 points. Dallas and Phoenix, each with 64 points, are tied for the second wild card position. However, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Nashville are all still very much in contention to become the second wild card team in the West.

This is going to be another great finish to the NHL regular season. There are a number of teams seperated by just a couple of points who are all capable of making the playoffs. Injuries could be a factor in determining who comes out on top, and fatigue could be a factor as well. Every team in the league had at least two players take part in the Olympics, with Chicago and Detroit each sending ten. Will those who did play in the Olympics be worn out by season’s end? Only time will tell. If history proves anything, however, teams with large numbers of Olympians can still win the Stanley Cup without being too fatigued. Look no further than the 2010 Blackhawks who won the Cup after six of their top players played in the Olympics.

NHL Western Conference predictions

With the 2013-14 NHL season now just a month away from beginning, I thought I’d offer up my predictions as to how the regular season will play out. With the new divisions and playoff format coming into play this year, it should be interesting to see which teams benefit and which teams do not.

Here are my Western Conference division predictions.

Pacific

1third_jersey_logo

The Kings have enough talent and skill to be one of the best teams in hockey. The past 2 seasons they have really disappointed in the regular season, so maybe this will be their year.

2ducks

I had a tough time trying to decide where I should place the Ducks. The loss of Bobby Ryan will hurt, but their acquisition of Dustin Penner will help. Also, they have Selanne back for one more year. Personally, I think this team will go as its goaltending goes.

3sharks_new

The Sharks got off to a hot start last season, and then faded off a bit until the playoffs came around. In the postseason they got hot again and were one win from the WCF. This team is getting old with guys like Thornton and Marleau, but they still have some elite talent.

4. canucks-logo

I think we’re going to see the Canucks fade a little bit this season. There is just too much uncertainty with them right now. How will John Tortorella do in his first year there? Will Luongo have a “bounce-back” season? They have a ton of skill, but I don’t know that they’ll put it all together.

5. Oilers_Logo_by_mattmcdonald

This is a team that could finish higher than I have them placed here. Edmonton has been stockpiling high draft picks for quite a while now, and I think this could be the year that they finally turn the corner and put together a winning season. The acquisitions of Andrew Ference, David Perron, and Boyd Gordon should help a lot.

6. 8lqmtthh0w2wgumr6goswqmki

I think it may be a while before we see the Coyotes back in the postseason. They had their run if you ask me. However, anytime you have Mike Smith as your starting goalie, you have a chance to win.

7. Calgary-Flames-Logo

The Flames are in a definite rebuilding phase right now. Don’t expect much from them for a few years.

Central

1. 56

The defending champs will return this season with pretty much the same roster that they won the Cup with last season. Losing Bolland and Frolik will force new guys to step up on the PK, but I don’t think they’ll have a problem with that. Brandon Pirri could be a very key piece to this team’s success, and Corey Crawford’s play will once again determine just how good this team can be.

2. st-louis-blues-logo

Many people have the Blues winning it all this season. I don’t. They’ll be a very good team, but I still don’t think that they have the offensive firepower that is needed to overtake the Blackhawks in this division or win the Cup.

3. Minnesota-Wild-Logo

The Wild were a big disappointment last season for most people. To me, they did just what I thought they’d do. Prior to getting Parise and Suter, they were a mediocre team. With those two, they were a bit better than the year before. This season, they’ve added Keith Ballard to the blue line (a big acquisition in my opinion), and they signed Matt Cooke to be replace Cal Clutterbuck. They’ll also have Jason Pominville for the entire season, barring injury. If Backstrom and Harding stay healthy in goal, the Wild could be a good team.

4. dallas-stars-new-logo-2014.0_standard_352.0

I feel like the Stars are being underrated by most NHL analysts. Most experts are predicting a bad year for Dallas, but I think this team could be a possible playoff contender. They lost Loui Eriksson via trade, but they added Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley in the same deal. Peverley is a good faceoff center, and Seguin has a ton of potential upside to his game. Not to mention they signed Shawn Horcoff, whose past leadership role in Edmonton should help with this team. Their biggest weakness is their defense.

5. jetswhite

This will be the Jets’ first year in the Western Conference, and I’m still unsure as to whether or not that’s a good or bad thing for them (on the ice). They made a push for the playoffs last season, but came up short over the last few weeks. Their team this season is much better than last year’s with their acquisitions over the summer, but I am not ready to put a whole lot of confidence in the Jets just yet. They are somewhat of a mystery team to me at this point.

6. colorado-avalanche-logo-nhl-hockey

Here’s another case of a team with a lot of young talent that under-performed last season. I don’t think they’ll be a playoff team, but they should be better than they were a year ago. I’m excited to see how Nathan Mackinnon does in his first NHL season.

7. NHL-Nashville-Predators-Logo-Wallpaper

Every year the Predators seem to be underrated by everyone. And every year Pekka Rinne almost single-handedly gets this team into the playoff race. This year will be different. I don’t see Nashville having a whole lot of success in the improved Western Conference this season.

Playoffs

Pacific Division: 

1. Kings 2. Ducks 3. Sharks

Central Division:

1. Blackhawks 2. Blues 3. Wild

Wild Card teams:

1. Canucks 2. Oilers

I’ll have my Eastern Conference predictions posted sometime in the next few days.